The Tiresias Institute for the Blind + Visually Impaired
The Tiresias Institute will be a cultural resource and outreach center offering social and educational opportunities for blind and visually impaired youth and adults in Seattle. It will also offer programs for students visiting throughout the state, so that they can benefit from engaging in the urban culture of Seattle. Although relatively small, this facility will provide needed educational and social services to blind and visually impaired, as well as sighted constituencies. It also strives to promote understanding and awareness of blindness within the sighted community, and to foster social engagement in a universally accessible facilityinflatable water park.
Introductory Assignment: Embodying Abstracting
Experiencing architecture is a multi-sensory process in which the visual is but one mode of perceiving. During the first week of studio we visited the St. Ignatius Chapel by Steven Holl and spent an hour exploring the space with specially treated goggles that occluded visual acuity. Students sought out as many non-visual modes of experience as possible and tried to find some way to record or remember the qualities of those experiences. The follow up assignment challenged them to transform their experience into the raw material for design by finding ways of abstracting those experiences –of translating them effectively into other forms or other relationships that can be read, reinterpreted and re-deployed. This exercise required them to think deeply about their experiences and to determine the best way to embody specific aspects in other material and formal terms. Their palette consisted of two distinct (and distinctive) physical materials of their own choosing. Work focused on how to manipulate these materials – transforming them, and relating them to each other through thoughtful exploration of tectonic processes.
Student’s Written Responses (a selection):
After visiting the chapel, students were asked to write three carefully crafted sentences about their experiences of visual impairment and architectural experience. Here are a handful of responses:
Blindness makes time thicken. One wades through it, tense for the unknown. There–suddenly an event, a reckoning, plunges into the flow, interrupting the ebb.
Without visual perspective, volume and space are measured by the nearness of things touched, online casino felt and heard. Relative distances of sounds erect barriers, carve holes and volumes in the imagination and the defining elements of space, once experienced, become stored in memory and placed in a mental map. Composed of haptic, auditory and recollected fragments, the map is no less real than a map made of visually imagined volumes.
Drawn by a faint glow
I proceed trusting my steps
Hearing the depth of space
Every bump in the ground was a potential fall and every corner a possible dead-end. Echoes from voices seemed only to magnify the distance between myself and others. Touch, whether from a person”s guiding hand or from the measurable repetition of the pews was the most memorable and reassuring sensation.
With clouds over my eyes, I learned that the most important sense in compensating for a lack of vision is trust. Rhythm kept me safe, and edges were more present, more immediate than centers. The unknown untouchable was the scariest thing of all – imagine if we had been in a field.
We delicately dabble in disability to bridge the gap of experience. We can”t know the richness and depth of another”s experience, but trust in our empathy and understanding to make a leap. We are momentarily blind and grasping for insight.
A brilliant hazy light captivated my limited sight and propelled me to move. Yet I experienced a fear of movement that has never grappled me. I feared the vast unknown.
Translation Artifacts (a selection):
Tiresias had the unique experience of having lived as both male and female. He was struck blind by Hera in a dispute with Zeus, and was compensated with inner-vision. His life’s path took him through the worlds of the living and the dead, and his powers of empathy were unsurpassed. For this he was called upon to intervene in both human and immortal affairs. While architects have long been associated with Deadalus the conjurer of the labyrinth, might we instead be risking the fate of his son Icarus, fatally blinded by stubborn pride in our own technology and vision? We would be wise to step into Tiresias’ shoes, if only for a while, and to try to see the world not with our eyes, but with all of our senses, and to take stock of architecture’s immeasurable dimensions.